October 25, 2017 | Narrative
An Investigation of Tradition
A fish boil is a styrofoam plate and plastic spork affair. The local travel site Doorcounty.com’s dining section calls it a “ must-see culinary event” and directs visitors to nine places to see, eat, and experience a fish boil. “What began as an economical way to feed large, hungry hoards of lumberjacks and fishermen has become an integral part of the Door County experience.” Also according to the website, “It’s a way visitors can pay homage to local tradition while filling their bellies with fresh, local fare.” Growing up, my nuclear family’s word of choice for stomach was always tummy. When in Wisconsin, where my dad grew up, belly sounds right.
In Fish Creek, right in the heart of Door County, Wisconsin, Pelletier’s Restaurant begins the fish boil every evening at 5 p.m. Families fill the tables out on the back deck. Kids jockey to sit as close to the rope as possible. Behind the rope is the cauldron.
Pelletier’s Restaurant’s website is freckled with photos of white Wisconsin folks. My Wisconsin folks are just partially white: We visibly differ from the rest of the fish boil guests in our gaggle of Indian (both with subcontinental roots and Native American ones) and black members, from babies to toddlers to octogenarians. The fish boil has Scandinavian roots, after all. In one photo, they are stacked in a 21-person human pyramid. A tall but approachable man in a blue T-shirt and faded work jeans tends to a massive fire in several action shots. With buzzed blonde hair, he quickly walks away from the column of flame. In another, he leans back frozen, about to douse the fire with a bucket of chilled water. Here he hoists filets of fresh, local fish into the bucket of boiling water.
This is owner and boil master Matthew Peterson. Around five thirty, Peterson begins to pace around the cauldron, making sure the temperature is all right, the kids are out of the splash zone, the fish is ready to go, people are paying attention. A fish boil is dinner and a show. And arguably, the show is the important half. He holds a hand over the steam to feel its warmth. He looks over his shoulder at a cauldron-sized vat of cool, descaled fish, skin still on and bones still in. The vat is metal and has holes so the boiling water can seep in and do its magic. Another vat has potatoes and onions.
The deal: $17 per person with two six-ounce pieces of boiled fish, boiled potatoes, cole slaw, unlimited non-alcoholic drinks, and a slice of cherry pie.
Other restaurants in the area include Al Johnson’s Swedish restaurant, where goats roam the grass-blanketed roof and waiters dress in traditional garb, artisanal creameries with, of course, very high-quality cheese. Then, there is Culver’s frozen custard and fast food, home of the butter burger. There’s a popular wood-fired pizza place, and a large diner-like spot called Julie’s. The descriptors “rustic” and “American” come to mind when I think of eating in Door County. A lot of places are inside an inn, or a lodge, with a big fireplace and dark beers on tap.
At the fish boil, the real magic is when the boilmaster—for that is what he is called— drops the potatoes into the water. It’s time for the “boilover.” In a split-second spectacle, men yell concise directions to each other, step nimbly out of the way in clunky workboots, children lean forward in their seats, mouths purse to say “ooooh.” Fleshy fish goes in and the water spills out the top of the cauldron: “Boilover!” the men shout. It sizzles the wood fire below and a column of flames and smoke erupts straight into the air, a sooty, nuclear cloud. The boilmaster jumps back, the ooooh’s escape children’s mouths, a few grandparents gasp.
Afterward, we all partake. On a plate, the fish boil is less than exciting. A beige plastic dish divided into three sections by the dish itself, high school cafeteria-style, boasts a hearty scoop of creamy coleslaw, two boiled potatoes with red skin and one boiled onion, or for kids, there are formerly frozen crinkle cut French fries. Where the dividers of the three sections meet, a thin lemon wedge balances on its rind. The biggest section has the fish. It’s presented in whole slices of body, both sides covered in skin that fades from dark silver to silvery white and can only be fairly described as slick. The inside of the fish is pinky white. As it sits there in its shallow pool of oily water, chopped into two six-ounce chunks with bones exposed at the wrong angles, it is one of the few times I consider fish a meat.
Dessert is cherry pie. Tart cherries are super Wisconsin, super local. The farmer’s market has an array of cherry products like tart cherry juice, cherry pickles, ten types of cherry jam and preserves, cherried baked goods, dried cherry bath salts, cherry scented potpourri. You can go tart cherry picking. Chopped cherry salsa is fantastic. Door County loves its farmer’s market, for a good reason. Strolling through the market with a cold cherry juice is fantastic— a pan-seasonal family activity.
Ultimately, you don’t go to the fish boil for unique flavors. For that, there’s fish curry from the Indian takeout spot in the same neighborhood. Or a frosty root beer from the drive-in burger joint. Door County knows good food, but it also appreciates tradition, and for that, I appreciate Door County. One Yelp reviewer angrily urges visitors to save their money and spare themselves from “bland and bony” small pieces of fish. Matt P. doesn’t get it. You go to the fish boil to come together over Wisconsin and celebrate Fish Creek tradition. A community can bond over a meal, even if the dish is not quite your taste.